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Friday, February 5, 2010

Friendship is why we travel

When the south wind left Clarke Island, Kangaroo Bay became calm and smooth, a mirror reflecting droplets of cumulus afloat in a cerulean blue heaven that soothed our memories of battling strong winds. Even putting a fishing line over the side proved too much. Instead we lazed on deck listening to jazz and seabirds while gazing upon a bleak yellow granite landscape dyed orange by fungus where it met the sea.

About the time a blood red sun bobbed on the silver mirror, our reverie was broken by the faint beat of machinery, and soon a small, rather cute fishing vessel turned the far point, its spreader arms extended like a water beetle skating on a pond.

Drifting up alongside, its wizened skipper hailed us, “How ya find the bottom?”

After Jude had snapped her first photo, her slow shake of head answered him across the water. “We tried three anchors here yesterday, but none held.”

Next to a stack of wicker cray pots on the open deck, his bean pole deckie broke out a smile while the weathered wizard backed the Jenny Sue up to us. Then stepping out the cramped wheelhouse, “It’s all weed hereabouts.” And after glancing up to the Mackerel sky, “There’s another blow coming, so best get up to Preservation Island. In close where it meets Rum Island.”

Next morning, our pond was empty, the wizard gone as if he’d never been, but the wind was back. Strange how winds round here gain strength so fast. From calm to gale can take but a few minutes. Again I’d left my move too late. Banks Strait was once again filled with white water.

To our west by six miles, a flat treeless island lies across its entrance, where in 1797, a rum ship from India had been blown aground. Of the seventeen souls on board, only three survived an open boat journey and long walk to Sydney Cove. Several attempts were made to salvage the valuable cargo, including a voyage by Mathew Flinders to survey the area, which subsequently lead to the voyage of the Norfolk that proved Tasmania an island. Preservation later became a sealers den, then a home for mutton-birders, finally a few sheep. Today it’s as deserted as it began.

Approaching, we sighted two other craft sheltering from the west winds, one a sailing catamaran, the other a large fishing craft. They were north of the wizard’s spot, in Horseshoe Bay, off an abandoned dwelling. Between them and us ran a large weedy shoal of dark and light blue.

Preservation is low, so the wind sort of deflects upwards as it crosses, and the closer we went, the less we felt its blasts. And that pleased Jude following my hand signals towards a Caribbean blue sand patch right off the beach. When she called out less than a metre under us, I released the anchor into clean white sand then we fell back over the ubiquitous black carpet of weed. The beach so close, if the wind turned, we’d be washed onto it.

For two days, the wind pelted us; we read, listened to its howl, and waited. At high tide, slop rounding Rum Island rocked us. And at all times, just astern the sea ran white. But in close where we were, it was nearly heaven. Smooth buff granite rocks poked up at one end of our pristine beach and virescent scrub ran along our doorstep.

By the time the weathermen forecast a change, we were getting a bit edgy. They said it’d first go south during the night and to avoid beaching, that required moving out into the rougher water in last light.

The following dawn, a light northerly filled our sails as we motor sailed at speed away from the Furneaux Group. We’d come, we’d seen, and now we wanted a mud bottom and something other than hostile barren islands.

The north east corner of Tasmania lacks harbours, so we laid a course for the Tamar River expecting an overnight sail. But the winds gods must have felt they’d whipped us enough, and instead, bestowed upon us a fair wind from the nor’west. And although that required our sails to be hauled tight, all that day and into the night, the miles steadily passed. And when the sun set, the lighthouse on Low Head could be seen flashing, and we’d lured both a couta and a squid.

In 1798, George Bass and Mathew Flinders were the first white folk to enter the Tamar River after those two adventurous lads were in close, exploring aboard the thirty-four foot Norfolk. They would have spied the river’s huge indentation, but for Jude and me, all we saw was blackness and a confusing array of winking lights. On our laptop back aft, the winking icon of Banyandah could be seen threading the shoals, while on deck the Low Head light blinded Jude as we sailed past. The Tamar channel is wide and deep, but torturous, and its large tidal range creates swirls and eddies unseen by us, yet felt in the darkness. It took care and teamwork to navigate the five miles up to George Town, which at the tightest corner was complicated by the sudden appearance of a cargo ship leaving at speed.

Back in 1804, when fear of a French invasion led the NSW Governor to establish a third settlement in the colony, a young Lieutenant Patterson landed in a nook opening on the east side of this river with 181 settlers, convicts and soldiers. But for us in midnight’s darkness, with scattered strange lights and the hint of darken vessels hidden upon swirling waters, when my torch found a mooring buoy at the start of that nook we immediately hooked onto it.

Physically exhausted we were soon in bed, yet the tinkling of a running river coupled with the natural high from creeping into a mysterious new spot kept us counting the ship’s bells and wondering what lay beyond the darkness.

In early light I spied from one window a large blue yacht nearby, then another named Kidnap on a pontoon with a locked gate; from the other window a wide span of foam flecked water and a few houses set on rising hills of dry summer grass. A few hours passed quietly in slow motion, then posting our phone number on a cabin window we set off to explore the town of less than ten thousand.

First known as Outer Cove, then York Cove, it was named George Town when declared a town in 1811, but immediately fell into decline because of insufficient fresh water. Patterson had already moved his main camp across the river, establishing Yorktown near swamps, which soon proved rather unhealthy. Meanwhile, in 1806, further up river through a fertile valley, the present city of Launceston was established at the confluence of the two Esk Rivers. George Town slid further into decline, until the constant silting of the Tamar forced the main port at Launceston to be shifted downstream to Bell Bay, the very next bay upstream from George Town, where mid-last century the Commonwealth joint venture Bell Bay Smelter commenced production. The site was chosen because of the excess hydroelectric power available, the deep water frontage, and to help create Tasmanian employment. Then when Rio Tinto Aluminium purchased the smelter in 1960 Georgetown grew bigger as it supplied an increased work force for the smelter, and subsequent BHP Ferro-steel and Gunns woodchip factories. Since that time automation has reduced worker numbers, but the locals are now looking to be reinstated as Bell Bay has been chosen for a proposed wood pulp plant that still seeks finance. However, there’s no excess hydroelectric power anymore, all comes from gas fired generators. And yet they still ship huge tonnages of bauxite ore in and refined billets out; same for the iron ore and its products. Concessions have been granted. Seems the pollies know that the un-employed usually change their vote.

Through a quiet neighbourhood dotted with historical houses we walked briskly in the cool midday sun. After a quick look from the Pier Hotel revealed Banyandah safe on her mooring, I was treating my lady to lunch at the Heritage Hotel, circa 1846, the oldest hotel still standing. Amongst an ornate fa├žade and etched glass depicting sailing ships we chatted with a few locals, heard more history, and plenty of gossip about greenies blocking development. From there it was on to the library and two more friendly helpful folk. Then more gumshoe walking and poking into nearly every shop on main street before meandering back for a cold one on the Pier Hotel’s balcony overlooking the harbour. Cricket played from wall screens, but we were more engrossed in conversation with a pair of mature citizens of property, who quickly got us up to speed on farming life, the dry summer, the wine industry, and why the town’s mayor was having so much trouble with his wife.

Sauntering home after an excellent day of jawing with so many folk, we discovered the tiny George Town Yacht Club open for business and stepped inside the simple white building to introduce ourselves. Meeting slightly rotund Brian, who quickly displayed quick wit and a smile, we then shook hands with Shane, who after mentioning he was old family, quickly proved helpful to a pair of newbies like us. In that short session, a ride to Launceston was arranged for the day after next, then we learned something of the Low Head Lighthouse and its unique fog horn that we’d passed the previous night. Seems a volunteer group fires it up every Sunday noon, so we pencilled that in. Brian then steered us to the man who actually owned the mooring we were on, he’s a ship’s pilot.

The big steel blue yacht is manned by a couple new to the sea, out on their first excursion. This we found out when Jo and John from Geelong, a pair our age, sauntered in and added greatly to the gathering. We invited them over for morning coffee then dragged our weary bones off for a quick snack before plopping into our comfy bed.

Must be aging a little bit because all that conversation took away me energy; guess the sixty mile bash up wind might have had some effect. Anyways, the next day started easy and stayed pretty much the same slow pace. John and Jo came by for a coffee, and straight away I could see some dangers. Their dingy ‘string’ wasn’t very strong, nor would it float, and that reminded me of losing our first dinghy. Ropes that sink foul props. And so immediately we started yammering on about boats, where to go, and how to get there, till we had talked ourselves hoarse. Felt good after that. Nice to offer some sound advice to a pair just starting out. Brought back memories of our first two horror years afloat. Then, quick as a wink, there was trouble. Jo tried boarding her dinghy facing outwards and her feet pushed it away till her full weight hung off seventy-one year old arms. There was some kerfuffle, her head ready to smash my deck on its way into swiftly running water. Her easy mistake could have proved fatal. Guess they mustn’t have had enough of us because after sorting out Jo, with a grand smile, she asked us over for Sunday morning coffee.

Big boat theirs. Too big if you ask me, weighing in at thirty-six tonnes. Be a handful for a couple of strong armed youths, although she’s got a bow thruster to help them get dock side. Jude gave Jo heaps more practical ideas on storage and how to relax and think ahead. While I walked round with John pointing out a few things I thought might cause them some bother. Don’t need more of that. There’s plenty without adding more surprises.

We gabbed on far too long before remembering the ancient fog horn. Quickly rowing ashore, we rushed to the main road then promptly stuck our thumbs out, and would you believe, hitched a ride with a trio of youngsters.

“Should we trust them,” Jude whispered as we rushed towards the black sedan with a pair of dices rocking on the rear view mirror.

“Let’s have a look.” And poked my head in on three seedy fellows. “How goes?” I called out, “We’re off to hear the old fog horn.”

“At Low Head?” The driver chipped in. “Hop in, we’ll take you there.”

So we did. Pushing aside a few discarded rum and coke cans, a red KFC box, we belted up, daypacks on knees at the ready. Straight away, Mama Binder asked about school, or did they work, and the driver and his offsider started telling us about the local high school. Seems there are two, and they’re nothing special. Well, this prompted me to ask what they did for excitement, and that got a better response. Drinking rated the highest. Great, I was thinking, just keep driving straight down the lonely road while I tried a different approach.

“We’re on a sailboat,” I said to no one in particular, but both in the front turned to face me. “Yeah,” I nodded. “We sailed in Friday night from the Flinders. Before that we sailed down from near Byron Bay. Ever hear of that place.”

Sure they had. Every kid has heard of Byron. Chicks and the world’s best surfing.

Well, I got a little wound up, and started talking about travelling the world when I was just a little older than them; how it changed my life, opened doors, awakened me to a universe of new ideas, and how I’d met the lady of my life hitch-hiking round Europe.

“You ought to try it. Of course, hitching’s not done so much anymore. But you guys could team up with a cheap car, visit wowser historical sites, see the world and blow your mind away with something besides liquor.”

Had I over stepped the mark? Would they right turn into the next paddock and roll us for our few bucks? Nope. Theirs eyes lit up, wanting to hear more. Can you really just travel round the world as easy as that? So I told them, all that’s required is a bit of gumption, some money, and lots of determination and hard work. That’s when the light house popped into view, and getting out, we extended an invite to visit us then looked at our watches. We were there just two minutes before the first blast. Fantastic. Time enough to get the video camera rolling while the trio of boys disappeared back down the road to town.

People are great. Young, old, doesn’t matter. Listen to their story, share dreams and problems; but I give advice only if it’s wanted. We’re all much the same. Stuck on planet Earth, trying to get through life without going hungry or being hurt. Blocking our course, giving fun to some, and great grief to others, are liquor and drugs, and the opposite sex. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

Oh, but we can. Moderation and tolerance. Easily lost, like the present.

Hearing the type “G” diaphone fog horn was an experience I’ll never forget. My eardrums shook like drum skins as foggy air pressure blasted out the resonator facing Bass Strait. It evoked visions of scary windy nights, and still ones completely lost to sight. Two of our olden brethren had reworked the machinery first put there in 1929, then abandoned in 1979 after navigational aids made it redundant. When they heard Jude and I were sailors who had known manned lighthouses, we got the whole run down on this one. What a tale of drama and excitement through 200 years of evolution. The first signal was erected in 1804, a simple flagstaff and fire. The first lighthouse was erected in 1833 and used sperm whale oil lamps. And this present structure, built in 1888, is now completely automated with super bright LED lights, flashing 3 times every 30 seconds.

Early Monday morn, we tagged a ride to Launceston with Shane, a thirty minute drive along a non-descript highway, and were set down next to the ornate Anglican Church. The streets were still quiet at 7:30AM. So we wandered around downtown munching a couple of apple scrolls while the city awoke. How interesting to see the facades of old buildings above today’s fancy fronts. To look up at empty dirty panes, some dating back more than a hundred years, while at street level Dick Smith’s smiling face glared at us from low hoardings. Seemed incongruous to me. But, hey, that’s life. Like a coral atoll, the living built on top the dead.

Launceston’s major natural attraction, the gorge on the North Esk River was a real treat. Okay, the forest was stressed and the river barely covered its rocky bed, but by today’s standard it was great. There was no admission fee, no advertising confronting us and the riverside walk was nothing short of fantastic. If we lived there, it’d be the way I’d start a day. Run, walk, paint, draw, contemplate life, so close to a major city, yet quietly natural. We enjoyed a cuppa in the park under a canopy of exotic trees, lush and green, fully watered; pestered by peacocks that gobbled up the almonds Jude had brought for our snack. There’s even a fresh water swimming pool just next to this magnificent river. It’s free too.

Late that day, under a hot glaring sun, Jude and I wandered through the downtown streets till coming upon the Tamar River. We were after an ice cream treat and a cool place to enjoy it, and our street guide was taking us to the Seaport Marina. But what we found still haunts me. Behold a waterside development; high rise flats, waterside cafes with outside covered seating, a marina filled with flash motor cruisers and expensive yachts. Then walk to the fancy railing and look down. What did we see? Mud! All those flash boats are sitting in gooey, stinky mud. Ducks float in small pools, nibbling at the dirty water. But those lovely craft sit in a sea of sediment.

In all my sea years I’ve never seen such a sight. Directly below, an older timber craft has a fire pump sucking water out its interior, and when asked what’d happened, its owner replied, “Dunno, just sank last night.”

Then the guy next to him said, “Got stuck in the mud.”

When we went down and talked to other boat owners, we heard a lot of anger and few reasons. Most blamed the clear felling operations going on upstream. Some said the council hadn’t done its job. Others blame the federal government. Truth is this river has always brought some silt out its mountains. But global warming, clear felling, lack of rain might have sped up the process. Whatever’s causing it, the results are terrible. And from what we heard, quite unhealthy as the city discharges partly treated human waste from seven locations up river.

On Tuesday, Australia Day, Brian lent us his pickup truck and we tootled round like skylarking kids wanking a day off school. We looked closely over Bell Bay, saw the huge plants and enormous electrical gird, thought of the need for employment, then the Earth’s dryness, and hit the same brick wall. Too many people on planet Earth.

Across the Batman Bridge we came to the town of Beaconsfield. Everyone in Australia knows that name and the tragic deep mine accident that dominated our headlines late in the 90s. We saw the miners name tags, the elevator the rescued had come out after so many days trapped below, then visited the mine shop to peruse the Chinese made ‘souvenirs’. Fluffy toy koalas, fake wombat fur slippers, snarling Devil key chains; Australia’s endangered critters for that feel good glow! This was one of Australia’s oldest mines. Hardy souls risked life and limb for the shiny metal. And now, just like those downtown hoardings, a flash shop front hides the blood and tears from our past.

Oh, we had some interesting times in George Town. Met real genuine folk, saw some new sights, and collected heaps more to add to our thinking matter. But, time came to move on. Other destinations beaconed. The tic-toc of time never stops and when a fair wind blows, we think of new places, new attractions, and new folk.

So, thank you George Town. We might come back. It’d be grand to once again swing on the mooring off the yacht club, watch ships speed past, and share more life with the good folk at Outer Cove.


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  2. advertisers please post elsewhere.

  3. Hello Capt'n Jack and Jude! We are now in the USVI spending some time with Tom and Amy (they were on S/V Sandpiper but have now sold her and bought a business here in St John - www.sadiesea.com) and watching the storm systems move down the east coast of the US. We will be working our way to Southport NC where Shiraz will go in a marina and will be put on the market. Sad but true. Then we will visit family and start a new "adventure". No definite decisions have been made, we will just play it by ear.

    We enjoy reading the blogs and love the pictures. Take care and continue to have fun!

    Your friends on Shiraz,

    Rene and Steve

  4. from an American moored at a desk job all day, thanks for writing of your adventures. your spirit & your heartfelt words make my day!

  5. It was a pleasure to have you visit out humble yacht club Jack and Jo.Maybe we will catch up again some day hey.

    Stay Safe... Shane